A Couple of years ago in Alaska I was briefly assigned to teach a study skills class, at which I did very poorly, because it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that I’ve never learned to study, nor to memorize. Which is not to say that I haven’t intentionally learned and remembered certain bits of information rather than others — simply that the process by which I remember information or fail to do so is largely unconscious, because I’m thinking more about the thing I’m reading about than about how I ought to remember it — usually this is more efficient, since I have more conscious space in which to read or write or wonder if I leave the remembering to automatic neural processes, or whatever’s responsible for that sort of thing.
That’s usually alright as a student, but as a teacher it sometimes presents difficulties. For instance, I just read a review of Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change by Barker Bausell, where he evidently argues that all this stuff we learn about in colleges of education do nothing to improve education — students will only learn more if we increase “relevant instructional time at their level” — and that’s the only thing we need (and can) do to improve education. Which requires, of course, having a much clearer idea of precisely what content we are out to teach. Based upon my own experience, I am having some difficulty imagining what Dr Bausell has in mind — or at least what it would look like in a classroom. He says: have a longer school day, a longer school year, a more explicit curriculum, teach and test only on what is explicitly in the curriculum (not vague “skills”), and hold teachers to this. I don’t doubt that young people might learn more stuff in this manner, but I’m still ambivalent, edging toward disagreement, for reasons that have nothing to do with efficient learning.
The reason for this has little to do with efficiency (I more or less believe him that whatever’s in the curriculum would be learned more efficiently), and a great deal to do with doubts regarding the content of the curriculum. I am by no means convinced that better remembering what is currently in our school textbooks would be a great leap forward in education, and ambivalent because in taking away autonomy from teachers in the way that a very detailed, explicit, and regularly enforced national curriculum would do, would mean that while our teaching could be no worse than that curriculum, it could hardly be better. And I have no confidence in our ability to produce a good curriculum.
Take literature. With a longer school day and year we’d ensure that kids come home academically exhausted, with drills and other homework still before them, and therefore unlikely to read much on their own. Being a homeschooler, and not a very industrious one at that, I usually read what my parents bought or what I found at the library, and there was lots of good stuff in there — in 9th grade or so I remember being especially proud of having read (and liked) Les Miserables, G K Chesterton, Arthurian romances, the Aeneid, George MacDonald fables, and Descent into Hell (Charles Williams); there were other books I enjoyed about as much, but was less proud of. From m own perspective (as opposed to the perspective of some hypothetical student who would neither read nor understand books without the imposition of necessity), I would consider it a shame to trade these for a more conventional course in literature, neatly assigned, packaged, delivered, and assessed. It’s hard for me to advocate something that would, in my own case, have been more of a loss than otherwise. More generally, I don’t know that it’s possible to produce a curriculum that is both god and exhaustive, because these books (ad other subjects, for that matter), are experienced existentially as well as academically. Give a teen Chesterton to read, and they might just end up with a Chestertonian outlook on life — which is in conflict with a number of other possible outlooks, and it matter what they encounter, and when. Books in the hands of kids tend to follow the logic of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: give them Dante to read, and they’ll have to read Virgil; and having read Virgil they’ll want to read Homer; having read Homer perhaps they’ll read Plato, and having read Plato they’re never going to read an argument in the same way again.
And the whole dazzling, strange, marvelous, terrifying thing about education is that, depending on what and how and when one is taught these various disciplines, there is not only a difference of knowledge and opportunity, but a difference in internal world. Having read and agreed with The Abolition of Man, I don’t at all trust the kinds of internal worlds that would be built by an exhaustive national curriculum. I suspect that it would be a rather dull and prosaic one, which could read Dante or Shakespeare and see only some bit of information to be mastered and written on a test.